Online learning will change universities by degrees

NEW technologies and online learning are set to transform universities bringing an era of great change. But as we struggle to understand exactly what and how much disruption we will experience - and how soon - we need to also understand that change won't be uniform across the sector.

With so many different sectors in tertiary education, the challenge created by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) - free online courses offered by prestigious universities - will be more immediately important for some more than others.
Real disruption

The debate to date has mades it seem that the large-scale online free courses known as MOOCs, will affect every element of what universities offer. And underlying this debate is fear. Will there be fewer universities as we now know them? Undoubtedly, yes.

These fears about online learning and recognising their potential have been around for a while, but have reignited since we added "massive" and "open" to online learning. When enrolments started to be measured in the tens of thousands and the courses offered at Harvard, MIT and Stanford were available for free, online education enhanced its reputation and increased its scale.

The discussions between supporters of an online learning future and sceptics are often working on the assumption that the traditional university degree will be the most affected. But I expect that this will not be the major market in which online will make greatest inroads first. I propose three areas where online will change the game quickly.

The first is the short vocational qualification; particularly where there is a need to demonstrate mastery for compliance purposes. Demand here is for the accredited qualification (not a whole learning or career-defining experience).

The second is the comparatively short (12 months or so) postgraduate qualification. Postgraduate students are often time poor, challenged by the demands of their job and/or family circumstances. Being able to be on campus and in class is their challenge.

For many postgraduate qualifications, they are often looking for specific learning outcomes or a career change. And with this group, flexibility is as important as quality. Online has the capacity to deliver a flexible, quality, reliable educational program in a way that many on-campus programs cannot.

The third area is the taster or short course. This enables all types of people to dabble in a particular subject for interest or when they are looking to study in this field. Most enrolments in MOOCs are of this third type, which is why few people complete a subject or seek assessment or accreditation.
Online challenges

Successful online education for whole programs over many years in the manner a typical undergraduate or professional degree face a series of challenges.

First is building an experience that will keep students engaged and learning over an extended period. This kind of high-level engagement online is possible, all you need to do is look at the gamer community. But the engagement relies on high investment in online interactive resources and therefore will need high numbers of students.

The second is integrity of assessment. At the moment, the only real solution is on site in-person examinations. This is not the rich learning experience that good quality assessment provides - there is no learning by doing in this type of assessment.

This challenge is less important where less complex assessment is required. And it's worth remembering that much assessment in traditional courses is already submitted and returned online.

The third is recognition of qualifications. An online program needs to offer an "accredited" qualification that is recognised by governments and/or employers. Only the short interest course is exempt from this.

The fourth is the informal learning that comes from hanging about on campus, being part of clubs or teams or chatting over coffee or a beer to discuss life. The way informal learning occurs on and around campus is a big part of the career and sometimes life-defining experience of an undergraduate or professional degree.

From the TV show Community, which portrays a mature age group of community college students, to the tropes of every movie that show Harvard or Oxford in action, it is this life that dominates our imagination about what a great education will be.

Much on-campus education is already blended - meaning online resources, formative quizzes and capture and replay of lectures are blended with an on-campus experience with hundreds, not tens of thousands, of students.

The blend will change quickly as better resources can be found. But online learning will have to meet some of the challenges above, before we can declare the traditional degree, as we know it, gone for good.

So in terms of immediate disruptive potential, the short course, exemplified in MOOCs, is off and running. Short vocational and many short postgraduate qualifications can, with the right investment in quality resources and systems and accreditation, sweep large parts of on-campus provision away quickly.

Online learning will disrupt, but it is where and how it will disrupt that is vital to the debate we need to have.

Margaret Gardner

Vice-Chancellor at RMIT University

Disclosure Statement

Margaret Gardner is currently a Director on the Board of Open Universities Australia (OUA), in which RMIT University is a shareholder. OUA offers online undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from a number of Australian universities.

Topics:  training and education universities

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